Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818. The book is one of the inspirations of the steampunk aesthetic that was first named in the 1980’s. Be Bold! Productions has created a musical stage adaptation of Shelley’s book and combined it with steampunk and expressionism. The result is an interesting if disappointing show.
The script is faithful to Mrs. Shelley’s book, which varies in several points from the famous Boris Karloff movie of 1931. We meet Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein, remember, is the name of the scientist) in the Arctic chasing the monster he’s created. He relates his story to a sea captain who’s saved him from the ice. The play opens and ends with the captain addressing us, telling us about discovering both Frankenstein and the monster. The story of creating the creature, then, is a story within a story.
The nameless monster educates himself by hiding for years in the home of a blind man and his family. By the time he returns to plague his creator, he not only can talk, but he’s quite articulate.
Brenda Bell’s dialogue is written in formal English, largely without contractions (“I do not believe you.”) and suitably artificial: “The accelerated speed of your evolution is astounding,” Frankenstein says to his monster. Ms. Bell also directs, and she keeps a nice expressionist tone throughout, with evocative lighting. However, there are moments that fall short of dramatic truth, when we feel that we’ve been here before.
The cast is serviceable. As Victor Frankenstein, Eric Fletcher is entertaining and technically deft, but he tries too hard at times to look insane. The script dwells on his madness as well: “In the eyes of a madman everything is sane,” he tells us three times at the show’s opening. Jonathan Rion Bethea plays the nameless monster well, furious, scarcely in control of himself when he addresses Frankenstein. “I will kill everyone you ever loved,” he tells him. As Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s childhood-playmate-turned-wife, Kyle Hughes serves well in a thankless role.
Brenda Bell’s lyrics are interesting set to Michael Sgouros’ music. Sometimes there’s a strict simple rhythm forcing the words to the notes: Learn from my past – Sort out the truth. The effect suggests the mechanization that is one of the themes of steampunk.
The production’s outstanding element is Mr. Sgouros’ musical direction, his creative instrumentation. He uses vibes, a marimba, drums and the strings of a piano’s soundboard for sound effects as well as for music. He doesn’t play a piano, but works directly with the strings of the soundboard, sometimes striking them with drumsticks.
In the play’s most interesting musical number, the monster dances with the mate that Frankenstein has created for him and sings a song called My Eve. It’s the monster’s fantasy; the female creature hasn’t come to life, and the mad scientist destroys her, screaming and laughing.
For all its promising elements, Be Bold’s Frankenstein ultimately fails. Its rhythm is awkward and its actors don’t have the emotional grounding to make all that Gothic melodrama believable. But Be Bold! Productions has certainly been bold, and given us some moments of macabre fun.Steve Capra